Andrew Sanger’s second novel, set in North London, is about the confluence of three strangers who change each other’s lives.
Bernard Kassin is an observant Jew and family man who has taken it upon himself to be vigilant for his community, acting on behalf of the elderly and frightened and against planning appeals and corrupt officials.
When Neil, a driver for a posh department store, is kicked out of his wife’s flat and becomes a neighbour, the two are drawn together by their shared love of jazz. Yet a trafficked young woman — whom Neil has sex with in a nearby brothel begs him for help — and so a plot is hatched between two unlikely heroes.
Like Sanger’s admirable debut, The J-Word, this novel mixes the themes of the thriller with a humane and perceptive writing style. Sanger’s sympathetic attentiveness to common humanity makes him see that “all worlds contain smaller worlds, and each tiny world is vast to those within its sphere… here were all physical and spiritual variety, all joy and grief”.
Bernard’s warm, happy marriage and eloquent passion for peace and virtue act as the steady heartbeat to Neil’s riffs of uncertainty, moral equivocation and moments of clarity. The son of teachers, the young man’s life has gone awry thanks to drugs, confusion and sex with strangers, so that he has had no further education and a mildly criminal past.
When he meets Liliana, we have already seen him have passing relationships with Goldie, a former prostitute, and an Israeli academic. He does not seem promising as a saviour.
But Liliana, a Romanian who has swallowed both drugs and the antisemitic poison that everything in her life is the fault of “clever, crooked Yids”, is someone who touches his heart in her exhaustion, fear and near-starvation. His residual decency sparks her tiny plea for help, and from this the action develops.
The world of The Slave encompasses both high and low culture, politics, conscience and the mixture of love and loathing which London evokes, but what keeps us reading is the plot: How can Neil get a gun? Will Liliana be saved or not? How can two men stumble their way through a brutal criminal gang?
Although the dialogue is clunky in places, the details concerning physical violence and how it affects ordinary citizens convince, as they did in The J-Word.